Thursday, November 6, 2014

How I Learned to Write

My grandmother always called it “the playroom,” but it was bereft of toys or games or anything else that would entertain two visiting grandchildren. Nonetheless, my brother and I spent hours in the drafty place—really just an afterthought our grandfather had tacked onto the dining room—while Mom and Nanny worked on Sunday dinner in the kitchen. A huge desk, immense to a child of six, occupied most of the space, complete with a swivel chair of cracked leather and lopsided proportions. The drawers of the desk were full of old receipts, pens that did not work, and papers from my father’s school days.

The other attraction to the room was a large wood closet, hand-crafted by Pop Pop out of cast-off wood. For some purpose unknown to my brother and me, the inside of the closet featured a set of steps that went nowhere. This intrigued us; we would take turns seeing how far we could go before our heads hit the ceiling. After this novelty wore off, my brother used it to play with his Slinky and toy cars.

But I turned my attention to the desk, that big and imposing piece of furniture with its drawers and pigeonholes and old ink blotter. I took the pens from the various drawers and tested them on the old green blotter, organizing the ones that still wrote into the little wooden boxes along the top of the desk. I carefully put all the papers into piles of size and color. I wrote my name over and over again on the backs of old Christmas cards.

And I made a discovery: deep in a bottom drawer, hidden under a set of oil paints, was a gray binder. The cover featured a Scottish terrier with a red plaid bow. There was still paper inside the binder, white paper with faint blue lines set close together.
I was enthralled.

I took the binder to my father. My brother and I knew that the toys and games we found in the house on Chester Pike once belonged to him; he was the only child to have ever lived in the large house with its curving staircases and high ceilings. He was sitting in the kitchen with my grandfather, talking about things at Westinghouse—the company where they both worked—when I came in with the binder.

My father took it from my hands. “Ah, I remember this! I think I had it in fifth grade.” He ran his hand over the cover, and then gave it back to me. “You can have it if you want.” I held it to me, prized possession that it was, and ran back to the playroom with it. I was already imagining the feel of a pen in my hand, the flow of the ink as it met the white paper. In my imagination, a black Scottish terrier frolicked across the yard, meeting a girl with a red and white bow in her hair. Together, they solved mysteries.

And so, the adventures of Scotty and Alice began to fill the lined pages of the notebook, written in pencil, careful block printing that I tried to make imitate the text of my beloved books. I didn’t plan the stories out in any way; I just wrote. Alice and Scotty found her grandfather’s missing watch, and discovered a nest of baby robins, and located Alice’s brother lost roller skate key. I filled all the pages in the binder, then looked for other places to put my words.

The cast-off envelopes in my grandfather’s big desk were full of blank spaces. Soon, they were full of words. So were the backs of old receipts. They were all stuffed into the gray Scotty binder.
I was becoming a writer. But, except for school assignments, I kept my writing to myself.

The practice on scraps of paper helped me. My teachers read my assignments out loud and marked my papers with big red A’s and stickers. But even as a teacher was extolling the virtues of my latest story, I would be constructing a new one in my head. It was my secret; I lived inside my head, creating my own characters and situations. I could scribble away for hours, content in a world I created. In high school, a teacher submitted one of my poems to a contest and I won. But when the guidance counselor asked me what I wanted to study in college, I said teaching. Teaching was, my parents had pointed out, a safe career for a woman.

I became a Teacher. When people asked me what I did, I said I was a teacher.

I kept writing, filling my stories into new binders, writing into spiral notebooks. I wrote and I taught and I married and raised a family. My family gave me more fodder for stories. My students became poems. But still, my writing was my secret vice, stealthily done after real work was accomplished. My stack of spiral  notebooks grew.

Finally, one summer I got brave. I enrolled in the Writing Institute at West Chester University, spending six weeks in a trailer on the Bull Center parking lot. I wrote. I wrote and I shared and I edited and I heard people—fellow students and our instructors—tell me something I had never heard before: that my writing was good enough to be published. In fact, Lynn told me, “I can’t believe you have not been discovered before.”

Now I write in the open. I write and I blog and I publish my books. Most of the time, people like what I write. Once in a while, they do not. I do not care. I write because I have to, because the stories that inhabit my head beg to be told. I write because it fills an empty void inside of me. I write because it brings me joy.

I am still a Teacher. And a Wife.And a Mother.And now a College Professor and a Literacy Specialist and an Instructional Coach. These are the roles I fulfill for other people.

But I am a Writer for me.

No comments:

Post a Comment